On Valentine's Day, while romantics sip champagne and slurp oysters in hushed temples of luxe, calme, et volupte, TJ and I will be fleeing paper tigers and dodging explosions, engulfed in aromas of gunpowder, hot peanuts, wet people. Unless it's rained out or we are, we'll be going to the Chinese New Year's parade again, falling on Feb. 14 this year. And when the last hip-shakin' dragon heads for the celestial-being barn, we know where to go for a good chill-chasing dinner. The tip came from Won Ton Lust, a juicy new book that I wish I'd written, but local writer John Krich did it instead: With his bride Mei Qian, he circumnavigated the globe "in search of the world's best Chinese restaurant." Among the select few San Francisco eateries he recommends is Sam Lok, which he characterizes as "authentically greasy Sichuan."
Since a majority of local Chinese families have roots in coastal southeast China, most of the good Hong Kong-style restaurants are jammed for the holiday season. But Sichuan, a long fertile valley butted up against arid mountains, is in central China, the westernmost stop before Tibet, and a Sichuanese eatery is likely to be less crowded. Its cuisine -- shaped by a short growing season, hence the need to preserve foods for the harsh inland winters -- features spicy, salty, and (in fact) sometimes deliciously fatty flavors. Cantonese generally don't go for it, but Beijing honchos (including those visiting S.F.) favor Sichuan food the way Americans go for good Cajun/Creole or Southwestern. So the evening after the gala kickoff of the New Year's holiday, we headed to Chinatown with travelin' Dave and Joey the skinny pastry-cook and Joey's colleague Melba, another cooking-school grad who's temporarily shelved her catering business until her kids get older.
Rain-washed melancholy Chinatown was quiet that night, its one-time crowds demolished along with the Embarcadero Freeway and the westward move of the Asian middle class. Sam Lok was bright with very white walls, strong lighting, red hanging lanterns, and red cloth napkins on the well-spaced tables, including three big round ones with the traditional lazy susans in the center. The bathroom is down so steep a set of stairs that none of us dared approach it, especially after spotting the broken doorknob. The crowd consisted of several cuddly salt 'n' soy couples and an immigrant family with two little girls (one of whom used a fork to turn her food into lollipops). While we were working on appetizers, eight young Sichuanese men came roaring in, sat down, and managed to order, eat, talk nonstop, and pay their bill in the space of half an hour.
The tea was so exotic, more a potpourri than a beverage, that we never thought of beer or wine. Each cup had dried chrysanthemum flowers, large and small red dates, and small nuts, into which a busboy periodically poured hot water. As the dates steeped, the liquid grew sweeter. Since eight is a lucky number (the eight directions, eight I Ching trigrams, Buddhism's eightfold path, etc.), we began with eight appetizers ($1.50-4.50). Our unanimous favorite was the luscious little sweet potato "pancake," sliced into eighths. Like certain dim sum, it had a browned, crisp-gooey taro-flour coating and a sesame seed garnish. "The consistency of the filling is like another of our holiday pastries, yellow bean cake," noted Melba. "I have a sweet tooth, I love this," she added. She wasn't alone.
Deep-fried squares of tofu had wrinkled skins sprinkled with sesame seeds and imbued with a marinade of fierce hot pepper oil; we'd intuitively matched them with their traditional accompaniment, cool fresh-slivered cucumber salad. "I hate bean curd," said TJ, "but spicing it up like this makes it enjoyable." The dish demonstrated the piquancy of Sam Lok's kitchen operating normally, rather than easing up for soft-palated customers. Had we been a table of guei-lo only, our cosmopolitan waiter (speaking English in the smooth baritone accents of central China that I love to listen to) would probably have asked us how hot to make the spicy dishes, with the tofu-level the default -- but seeing two Cantonese faces at our table, he automatically had our dishes gentled to southern Chinese tastes. Another intuitive pairing matched sliced pork tongue with chile oil against sweet-sour jellyfish, "both part of the usual appetizer plate for a banquet," Melba noted. The meat, cut in tongue-shape thin slices and lightly glazed with just a touch of hot pepper oil, was still crunchy, rather than spongy, with a hint of that rubber-band texture (like that of black fungus) so beloved in China. The jellyfish were OK but unmemorable.
Wontons were also billed with chile oil, but that didn't mean it was the same sauce as the tongue: "Chile oil" turned out to be a generic term for a multitude of flavors. Tiny and tender wontons had a sweet-hot complex sauce, easy-spicy fun like a Tilt-A-Whirl in the shadow of a roller coaster. None of us much took to the potstickers; the filling was the usual gingery pork mince, but the dough was unpleasantly thick. Joey and Dave both pointed out that the red chile sauce on the table was fresh and excellent. "It's not rancid!" said Dave. "It's not separating!" exulted Joey. It was for eating, not for show. Long beans minced finely with ground pork and hot and sweet fresh peppers were tasty, unique, and somewhat scary: Would cutting the long beans shorten our lives? "This is hard to eat with chopsticks," murmured Dave. "You have to mix it with rice," said the waiter, overhearing as he served the soup. "Whoops!" we collectively muttered, hastening to order the missing reagent.
"For any celebration, you have to have soup, meat, poultry, fish, and a vegetable," said Melba. Hot and sour soup ($3.50/$5.50) was sour but not hot enough or rich enough, the stock too mild to stand up to the seasonings and the mass of egg flower. Hot-sour chicken ($6.50) was a spicy stir-fry of both tender white and dark meat. "If it's too hot," said Melba (gasping), "don't drink water, eat rice." A steamed skin-on whole catfish was the last live fish in the tank, which we ordered because at Chinese New Year you have to have a whole fish. Both were good but not as thrilling as other dishes. I felt obliged to order the gala ($10.50) banquet dish, braised pork shank, although the spicier twice-cooked pork ($7.50) would have been more familiar and more typically Sichuanese. The shank must have come from Superpig; it would have fed a multitude. The ultratender meat was surrounded with its succulent gooey fat layer. (Pretend you live next to a mountain range, and pork shin-fat is the local foie gras.) The rich gravy was seasoned with Chinese five-spices mix (ground aniseed is its spokesperson) and had sliced mushrooms, carrots, and a few peas afloat, along with chopped scallion tops. Turnabout's fair play: This seemed a Sichuanese answer to all that fusion food where Eastern spices service Western cuisine like B-girls in a Bangkok bar.
Two gorgeous vegetable dishes complemented the pork. Shredded potato strings were available in hot chile oil or vinegar; vinegar was an obvious match for the pork and a completion of the Chinese "five flavors" (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy) that are supposed to be present, serially coexistent and complementary, in the dishes of each course of a banquet. The julienne-cut potatoes, simmered at low heat until just crisp-tender, exemplified the Chinese treatment of vegetables -- even starchy North American vegetables. Joey thought they must be "Chinese potatoes" but the waiter said, "No, they're Idahos. They started in the Americas so why take them all that way east and then bring them west again?" TJ, whose childhood treats included raw potatoes the way other people's encompassed raw cookie dough, was in heaven.
A second thrilling veg was mustard greens with garlic. "So pure," I gasped at first taste. The greens looked like jade carvings; the garlic sauce (based on a little cooking stock and a vast amount of minced sauteed garlic) was clean and aromatic from the stinking rose. The spears were an object lesson in eating protocol: If you tried to pick one up from your platter with the plastic chopsticks, you'd lose it. If you placed some rice in your little rice bowl and put the greens on top of that, then lifted the bowl close to your mouth, no problem. You realize that with all the dishes sopping into the rice bowl, the sauces combine to create a unique nightly melange -- which is how the steeped rice gets to be the perpetual main course and the main courses become condiments.
"My family thinks it's impolite to leave rice, an insult to your host," said Joey. "It's not an insult," said Melba, "but you're not supposed to waste food." "Whoops," I said, "among Thai Chinese, if you finish, it means you're still hungry, and they have to refill your plate." "Well, with Cantonese, they say, as much rice as you leave in your bowl, that's how fat your wife will be," Joey concluded. Looking at his rice bowl, I put my arm around Dave's shoulder: "Honey," I said, "one of us is gonna get Roseanne, and the other's stuck with Linda Tripp. Gung hay fat choy, old buddy.